The Viz Police: Overhaul of Recovery.gov

By Ellie Fields February 18, 2009

We at Tableau applaud the Obama administration’s efforts to improve accountability and transparency. The best way to kill germs, as they say, is to put them in the sun. We’re big believers in a digital democracy: making information accessible and understandable to the people who make decisions by it. In a democracy, that’s voters. In a company, that may be a workgroup or division.

But how do I say this nicely… the representations of data on recovery.gov are uninspired at best. In this post the Viz Police offer a little help.

Floating Bubbles. Really?

The first chart on Recovery.gov, the site that explains the new stimulus bill, is a bubble chart. Bubble charts can be useful at times but humans don’t tend to compare areas as well as lines. We have three beefs with Obama’s bubbles:

  • Having the bubbles floating in space makes it hard to visually compare amounts.
  • The colors don’t encode any additional data.
  • The bubble labels don’t match up with the actual line items: you’d be hard-pressed to find “Protecting the Vulnerable” in the text of the Stimulus Bill, which makes it hard to dig deeper.

The graphic is pretty, but if you’re trying to understand where the money is really going, not too useful.


Recovery.gov investment by program



In the public interest, we re-created the chart. We’ve added jobs to the view but not broken it down by cost per job because, as Stimulus.org notes, without a time dimension it’s impossible to get a meaningful metric. Using a tool like Tableau you could drill down into each program to explore the data further.

Stimulus bill investment by program

Which brings us to our second point:

Put the Data Online

You can get the text of the stimulus bill online in a document, but you can't get the data by line item in a chart. That leaves people with the choice of digging through the bill line-by-line or accepting the summary-level graphs on recovery.org. We worked with a datasheet from Google Spreadsheets that was drawn from Stimuluswatch.org, which asked people to vote on projects. As a result, our dataset is not the final one in the bill.

President Obama: You won the presidency by assuming Americans are smarter than we’re given credit for. Put the all the data online so we can discuss and bring new thoughts to the debate.

Make the Data Visual

Finally we look at the other visual representation featured on recovery.gov-- a map of where the dollars will go. In this case we’re shown jobs per state, but we have to hover over each state to get the data. Again, it makes it difficult to compare data state by state. And jobs, cost and program data are split up, perhaps intentionally. But we can get a lot more out of this data by looking at them together without even creating any bogus measures.

Recovery.gov jobs by state

Perhaps we want to see how the jobs split up by state. In this case, displaying bubbles on a map helps us visually compare job creation in terms of a known reference point—the map of the US. And since we often think of national bills in terms of region, I’ve added color by region. Now it becomes obvious that the South and the Rust Belt parts of the MidWest should do well in terms of jobs.

Stimulus bill jobs by state

Now let’s look at what programs are going on in each region.

Stimulus bill jobs by program and region

The Digital Community to the Rescue

Other sites have done better. The aforementioned Stimuluswatch.org has done a nice job of fostering discussion on the bill, and made its data set available. OFF the MAP did a great visual analysis of the US Economic Stimulus and Unemployment by County.

Despite our criticism of the visual presentation of this data, we’re ecstatic that the Obama administration is taking steps to make more data available. And we’re here to help make that data comprehensible to human beings, who must ultimately make decisions based upon it.

By Ellie Fields

Comments

Submitted by Wade Tibke (not verified) on

Hi Ellie - Great post! The bubbles are truly effervescent.

We've made the StimulusWatch.org data part of our Data Rockstar Viz Challenge.

Anyone can download the stimulus data at http://www.tableausoftware.com/vizchallenge and create vizes and dashboards with Tableau.

If folks don't have Tableau Desktop, they can download a trial at http://www.tableausoftware.com/products/trial.

And make sure to submit a viz to the challenge!
Submitted by Derek (not verified) on

For all you visualization fans out there the best interactive representation of the budget currently (from my perspective) can be found at http://wallstats.com/deathandtaxes/ where you can see a macro and zoomable view of the budget.

By the way, love the Tableau product...

Submitted by Jacob (not verified) on

The first thing that came to my head upon seeing the floating bubble charts was treemaps.

Juice Analytics did a rather good one on this topic here: http://www.juiceanalytics.com/writing/juices-stimulus-bill-explorer/

The New York Times has also used this technique several times recently, from displaying market caps of financial firms to Olympic gold medals.

As graph/visualization techniques go, treemaps are rather new and I haven't seen many tools that can implement them without programming expertise. They stand to benefit a lot from a formal Tableau implementation and the flexibility that would provide.

Submitted by Paul B. (not verified) on

Great post.

What would make the jobs by region and state even better and stand out more would be a ratio between population demographics by region and state. You could also then bounce the data off of other economic markers by state and region to even gather more intelligence from the information.

I have been using Tableau for over a year now and it has saved me so much time; and more importantly helped increase revenues of the firms I have worked with. Great tool.

Submitted by Wolfgang (not verified) on

I acknowledge that "Death and Taxes" is a great piece of work as a poster and from a graphic design point of view.

But from a visual analysis point of view, there are several flaws that make e.g. comparison very difficult (as pointed out in the post above). Some students recently analyzed it and provided some suggestions for improvements:
http://www.infovis-wiki.net/index.php?title=Teaching:TUW_-_UE_InfoVis_WS...
I disagree with some of their objections - however, I think "Death and Taxes" is not the best way to represent budget data...

Submitted by matt (not verified) on

Aside from all of the, very valid, points made above with regard to the problems of using bubbles for data like this, there is one big problem which has not been mentioned yet. What happens when you touch a bubble?

*POP!*

not exactly the image one wants to convey when talking about very large sums of money...